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Aunt Pythia’s advice

November 1, 2014

Well, hello and good morning! Glad you all could make it onto Aunt Pythia’s magic bus today! I’ve redecorated to celebrate Daylight Savings Time (or rather, the end of it):

We can all get in! Squeeeeeze!!!

We can all get in! Squeeeeeze!!!

Daylight savings time has made Aunt Pythia very happy today, because it means an extra hour for me to focus on you, you and your problems, which is what Aunt Pythia loves to do, at least on Saturday mornings, and at least when they involve sex or math (or ideally, both).

By the way, to investigate and demolish the myths around Daylight Savings Time, check out this fantastic and scientific video (best line, “waking up is like sneezing”).

Before we dig in to this week’s juicy questions, Aunt Pythia has an unusual request. Do you remember a couple of weeks ago, when I dragged my family apple picking? Well it turns out that a bushel of apples is A LOT OF APPLES, and I’m really very sick of apples, apple pies (current count: 9 pies made in the past 2 weeks), and apple sauce. If anyone wants some apples, swing on by and I’ll hook you up. Please. Oh, and also:

please think of something interesting, reasonable, and non-apple related

to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am pretty much fine with pornography, aside from instances in which women are blatantly coerced or otherwise not participating of free will.

My question pertains to the increasing prevalence of extreme porn and how it impacts real relationships. As with our news and so on, everything has become click bait. Remember back when lesbian porn was risque? Now if a girl isn’t sucking a dick that was just in her ass the previous minute, it’s considered sorta boring. Next thing you know, men imagine women should be doing all these things in real life.

Trying to frame a question here, how does one be generally supportive of the existence of pornography and also help men understand that she is “not doing that” without coming off like a prude? Moreover, when encountering such a man, is it better to just tell them to fuck off entirely? I cannot imagine that any man who is obsessed with the idea to jizz in my eyeball can have actual respect for me as a human being.

Wondering Tolerant Female

Dear WTF,

Great question!

But before we go there, how can you be sure someone isn’t being coerced? I can’t, so I prefer the animated kind of pornography, preferably Japanese, because those Japanese animators are totally perverted and awesome, and then there’s really nobody being coerced. Perhaps TMI about Aunt Pythia, but since I didn’t tell you which of the hundreds of subgenres of Japanese anime I’m into, you really don’t know much – trust me.

Now, on to your actual question. I agree that the realm of “normal sex” has moved by more than a few notches recently. When I was in high school, there was no internet, so we actually had to steal our parent’s dirty magazines and VCR tapes – lots of them – to figure stuff out. Come to think of it, at least where I came from, it really wasn’t hard to come across porn, and moreover I remember it being insanely misogynistic and violent, almost always involving rape of a clearly drugged-up woman. From that vantage point the weird, rape-dominated scenes from the 1980’s have been replaced by weird but consensual extreme positions of today, and I’m personally glad to make that trade.

I’m not a historian of porn, though, I so I might be getting this all wrong, and yes of course I know there’s lots of very extreme stuff available nowadays as well.

In terms of respect for someone as a human being, I’m not sure we’re speaking the same language. There’s nothing logically inconsistent with thoroughly objectivizing a sexual partner during a sex act and then having a mutually respectful and thoughtful conversation about free will fifteen minutes later. It’s all about what you’ve agree to, and what’s fun for you.

So in other words, if you don’t want to be doing this stuff, that’s fine and you shouldn’t agree to it, but measure someone’s respect for you by how they bring up the question, not whether they want to do it. In other words, the man who doesn’t respect you is the man who pushes this stuff on you without consultation, or who makes it your problem that you’re not into it.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

The Empire Builder (Amtrak) takes around 46 hours to reach Seattle from Chicago (if it’s on time). Besides the amazing scenery, the trip offers the possibility of scintillating conversations with strangers in the Dining Car. A flight between the two cities, on the other hand, will take just 5 hours. It would be much cheaper, but would otherwise be a nondescript experience. While air travel is the pragmatic choice, the rail option underscores the point that sometimes the journey is as interesting as the destination. As I teach an informal math course to some colleagues, I often find that we are conditioned to find the shortest path to the answer. In many “toy problems” that we discuss in class, it is the path to the answer that is relevant to the real world. The actual answer is relatively inconsequential. Should math be taught differently so that it is more akin to train travel than flying? If so, what would you recommend to make math teaching more contemplative? And would these approaches be scalable, i.e., work in structured courses with larger enrollment?

Obsessive Correlator

Dear OC,

This question is also great, and has a much smaller chance of having been stolen from Savage Love.

I have often fantasized about taking a sleeper train across the country, with my whole family in tow, and meeting people in the dining car and having fascinating conversations. I’ve even priced it out, and it’s expensive but not impossible. I got the idea from a mathematician who had traveled with his family on the Orient Express in the 1980’s, which is even more fantastical (and expensive). Can you imagine getting on a train in Paris and getting off in Hong Kong? How cool would that be?


Even the angle of Europe on this map is mysterious.

Back to your question. Why yes, I think a meandering route through mathematics would be wonderful, and is sadly almost never done. We are so obsessed with skills-based accomplishments, we rarely spend time on why we’re doing something or how someone could have come up with it in the first place.

One of my few regrets of leaving Barnard is that I never had a chance to run a freshman seminar course on mathematics that I’d planned in the style of the Pythagorean Society (minus some of their crazy rules like “not picking up that which has fallen”).

It is my earnest belief that every person engaged in learning mathematics is themselves a mathematician, rediscovering and rejoicing in the mathematics that has been understood by our culture for hundreds of years but by us as individuals for no time at all. We should all be treated as philosopher queens in this process, and so my idea was to do that in a wifi-blocked room, focusing on the questions we pose and how we pose them and what patterns we might find and why we’d care (or not!) about them beyond their intrinsic beauty.

Sounds great! I still wish I could do that. And I also hope that other people do that.

So here’s the thing. Most people think of mathematicians as super lazy, and there’s of course something to that; lots of mathematical breakthroughs are essentially proven shortcuts to long-ass calculations that go something like, “we have a collection of things, and some of them have this cool property that makes them easy to understand, and now I’ve proven that all of them actually have that cool property.”

But at the same time, mathematicians are also the most inefficient people in the world, because they get entirely focused on abstract rules and scenarios that almost never have a concrete application to anything, and they think about the patterns they notice for hours. They are all about the meandering path, in other words. It’s not a bad life, but it does take time.

Finally, to your question: when it’s a small group, consider yourself a facilitator rather than a teacher. Ask questions and get people involved in the discovery. Make a silent pact with yourself that you won’t explain anything directly, that you will only issue hints, and try to emphasize the beauty and truth in everyone’s contributions. With a larger class it’s much harder, but sometimes you can get the right atmosphere and then have people work in groups.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a senior male professor in a STEM department. Here’s my question. What, if anything, should I say about romantic relationships between faculty members and graduate students? In particular, what action should I take concerning a professor who has dated at least three graduate students in our department? There is no formal rule at our university against faculty/student dating, as long as the faculty member has no direct supervisory relationship with the student. What’s more, there is a senior faculty member who is married to a woman he started dating when she was a graduate student here, which makes it awkward to denounce such relationships in general. And I know that Aunt Pythia herself is married to someone she met when she was a grad student and he was faculty!

So you could argue it’s none of my business. But you could also argue it’s rotten to put our grad students in a position of feeling like they’re a captive dating pool for the single faculty members. I know that our graduate students are aware of the serial dating; no grad student has directly told me that they find it threatening or off-putting, but another faculty member (a junior woman) has told me that she thinks it’s bad for the department.

What do you think, Aunt Pythia? Talk to the serial dater himself? Talk to the department chair? Or butt out and say nothing to anyone?

Tenured Professor at a Singles Bar

Dear TPaaSB,

It’s true, I was a grad student and my husband was a post-doc in the same department, but I’d argue that’s a bit different from his being a professor. Even so, I’d probably have dated him even if he had been, so there’s that as well.

I’m not sure how much anyone can do about this, to be honest. You can make rules but then people will probably break them. Not sure if that’s better.

On the one hand, you want graduate students to feel safe and not sexualized in their role as learners, and having the feeling that you might be “next in line” for this professor isn’t helping. It’s particularly unhelpful that he’s dated three, because it is starting to seem like he is both incapable of finding women outside the department and bad at relationships. Or maybe the women all dumped him, who knows. But yes, I agree that this guy is making things weird.

On the other hand, there’s a moment in your life as a man or a woman that you decide it’s time to look around for a life partner, and if you’re a 23-year-old woman who wants kids, like I was, then the men your age simply burst out crying in your presence from the pressure of commitment, and you end up looking for older, more stable, and more mature men that aren’t intimidated by your brains and your life plans. You could look outside the department, but the problem is you spend almost all your time in the department and there are all these yummy smart nerd boys who look great in homemade sweaters would look great in your homemade sweater, so whatareyagonnado.

In terms of advice for you, I’m going to say to keep quiet, unless you feel like the guy is actually predatory or is fucking with these women’s egos or chances of graduating. If that’s true, then talk to him and voice your concerns.

Readers, if you disagree, by all means chime in.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I just met a twenty-something hot girl online (only ten years or so younger than me); her interests (her words) are work, martinis, and rough sex (not necessarily in that order). We’ve met once so far, and it was everything I could have hoped for — spitting, faceslapping, and some dirty talk. But I know that the best way to great sex is though pleasing your partner, so for the next time we meet I want to step up my game. She said she was game for anything, so I want to be creative without crossing any boundaries. She was happy last time to be called a slut and a whore, but maybe there’s something more original as far as dirty talk goes (for example, how can I make it more interactive by forcing her to respond in some way?) Also, she’s a gorgeous BBW (mmmm), so (given the context) is calling her a fat whore a good idea? My impression is that she is naturally very confident and outspoken, so I am imagining her fantasies stem from a positive rather than negative aspect of her personality, but I really don’t know…

Naughty and Salacious; Tenured Young.

Dear NaSTY,

Aahhh, the triple fantasy of spitting, faceslapping, and dirty talk. You’re living the dream, buddy, there’s no doubt. I mean, if you’re into that kind of thing. Which you obviously are.

As far as whether she wants you to call her a “fat whore,” my guess is she wouldn’t be offended if you tried it. It’s not like fat people don’t know they’re fat! We get told it every day of our lives, so turning it around and making it a good thing (erm, in this context I think it qualifies as a good thing) might be fun!

If you’re worried about it, ask her before the next tryst, “hey honey, would it be ok if I call you a fat whore during sex? I find your body exquisite and it turns me on to talk about it.”

Auntie P


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Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. November 1, 2014 at 10:12 am

    Regarding meandering math teaching: as educators, you and the letter writer probably know more about this than I do, but there’s the constructivist philosophy/movement that says not only is the meandering path better, but insists that this is the only way for real learning to happen (a paraphrase of the idea that each person has to rediscover the mathematical truths for themselves). Their ideas have been fairly influential in most of the last several iterations of math ed reform, but, at the end of the day stakeholders still seemed to care about whether the kids could do concrete stuff (add 3 digit numbers, calculate the area of a triangle, find maxima of polynomials, etc). Part of that is because those skills were presumed to be needed for technological/engineering careers and also because no one could be bothered to write or, worse, grade or, worst, pay for grading exams that would assess mathematical habits of mind.

    (aside: if you don’t have Habits of Mind on your list to read at least twice a year, please rectify that error)

    Grading/assessment is, I think the main systematic sticking point. Another major issue is getting away from the idea of THE RIGHT ANSWER in math. That is a (nearly universally held) deep seated misconception that is completely contradictory to the meandering exploration. Meandering explanation means that the teacher needs to be comfortable not knowing where things will go or what the answer will be.

    However, there are teachers (probably a lot of them) who are effective this way with their students. For four of my favourite examples:
    – Sue VanHattum, a friend of this blog who writes at http://mathmamawrites.blogspot.com/
    – Dan Meyer (dy/dan) http://blog.mrmeyer.com/
    – Fawn Nguyen: http://fawnnguyen.com/
    – Chris Danielson (http://talkingmathwithkids.com/about/ and http://christopherdanielson.wordpress.com/)

    Also, there are several summer programs I know that essentially subscribe to the meandering math idea. Hampshire takes it the farthest, I believe, while PROMYS and
    Ross both encourage it.

    Finally, meandering math is fun for parents to do with their kids. I mean, what’s the point of having kids if not this?


  2. alex
    November 1, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    I recently watched my school’s Sexual Harassment Response Training video for faculty, and based on that, I would suggest for the writer “tenured prof at the singles bar” to pass the information along to Human Resources and/or the school’s Title IX coordinator, and then let them decide what to do – that’s their job. They’ll investigate and even if they decide they can’t discipline the professor in question in any way, at least there will be a paper trail if issues arise in the future. Also, their investigation may prompt the professor to search for mates in a more appropriate venue, or at least compel him to learn the nuances of sexual harassment in preparation for possible future litigation.


  3. Min
    November 1, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    Aunt Pythia: “how can you be sure someone isn’t being coerced? I can’t, so I prefer the animated kind of pornography, preferably Japanese, because those Japanese animators are totally perverted and awesome, and then there’s really nobody being coerced.”

    Excellent point! And given the involvement of organized crime (the yakuza) in Japanese pornography, it is a good bet that many of the women in live Japanese porn are being coerced, one way or another.


  4. November 1, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    “…in the style of the Pythagorean Society (minus some of their crazy rules like ‘not picking up that which has fallen’).”

    And also hopefully not drowning those who prove that √2 is irrational.


  5. Irene
    November 3, 2014 at 2:58 am

    Saw and article last week in which it was shown that if the clocks weren’t changed children would play and hence exercise for longer (not long but enough to make a small impact on obesity) so that extra hour comes at a cost!


    • November 3, 2014 at 7:00 am

      Please send me a link so I can laugh at the statistics. Or maybe I can propose a similar theory whereby, if we got rid of daylight savings time, we could also cut taxes, live longer, or have better marriages.


  6. November 3, 2014 at 9:57 am

    I know the train questions was more about mathematics but can’t resist giving a huge rec to cross-country train rides. I’ve done it twice on Amtrak. I was a lot younger and didn’t have the money for a sleeper car, but it was awesome. When I can, I do longer routes with a sleeper, because it’s way less stressful than flying and you can get up and walk around (and often doesn’t take that much longer when you factor in security) and it’s awesome because you can chat with strangers in the lounge and at meals so you get to meet people, but then retreat and chill out alone when you want to (which is nice for borderline introverts like me — and you can even do this a bit in coach, like just put your headphones). BTW, the Empire Builder is an amazing route especially when you connect via the Lakeshore Limited.


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